The thrill of pioneer spirits

August 17, 2001

Dorothy Zinberg was exhilarated by the sense of academic possibilities in Turkey's new Sabanci University

Fantasies are cheap; making them real is quite another story. Having spent my professional life in universities with long histories, where old buildings and entrenched disciplines scramble to keep pace with the rapid changes brought about by new knowledge, technology and societal demands, I was fascinated by my visit to a new, private, not-for-profit institution: Sabanci University. Situated on a hill 40km outside Istanbul, the university is the realisation of Sakip Sabanci's fantasy.

A Turkish rags-to-riches entrepreneur with a fervent belief in his country's need for innovation in higher education, he has provided the funds to turn the fantasy into reality. Only two years old, the gleaming white buildings of the campus manage to capture the feeling of Istanbul's architecturally exotic past while looking to the future. Its core architecture is dominated by a central building with commanding views towards the Marmara Sea. It conveys the impression that on top of this citadel and within these walls, knowledge will be created and flow downwards to the society waiting eagerly below.

But when one walks into the library, the metaphor collapses. This is an electronic citadel that aims to import knowledge from every part of the globe. Although it already holds 30,000 hard-copy volumes, it is called an information centre, not a library. Multi-tiered and glass-walled, this state-of-the-art centre provides access to more than 6,000 electronic journals and possesses some 45,000 DVDs, slides, books, and other multimedia sources online.

All students are provided with laptops that can be plugged in from their rooms or from dozens of other links on the campus. Like other universities that have been created de novo - Sussex in the United Kingdom or Santa Cruz in the United States - Sabanci is trying to do away with traditional disciplinary boundaries and create new modules that will emphasise systems and skills. Unlike Sussex and Santa Cruz, there is no state funding.

Students and faculty feel like pioneers. The 550 undergraduates (350 more will be added in September) are selected from the top 1 per cent of university applicants nationwide. Of the students, 62 per cent are on full scholarships while more than 70 per cent receive merit-based financial aid. Within five years, the university aims to enrol 2,000 students, half graduate and half undergraduates. According to Ahmet Evin, dean of arts and social sciences, who has a PhD in comparative literature from Columbia University, 60 per cent of these students will be in engineering programmes and 40 per cent in arts and sciences.

For the 120 faculty members, the visionary zeal is supported by generous salaries and stunning housing for those who live on the campus. There is no tenure, but faculty are assured of long-term appointments even if they might in time be moved to lesser positions. In the years since their creation, Sussex and Santa Cruz have become more traditional. What can Sabanci learn from these once-exciting experiments?

Its newness provides a special opportunity to assess its accomplishments and shortfalls over time. By setting up a baseline for the rigorous examination of the university, administrators would be able to study over time the career fate of their students, the intellectual output of the faculty and the effectiveness of doing away with a disciplinary approach to higher education - in short, the distance between their goals and what they have been able to achieve. In this way, Sabanci would also make a contribution to the knowledge base in the fields of theory and practice in higher education.

Some problems are already apparent. The administration lacks sufficient structure to make up for the absence of department heads and secretaries. There are no transparent procedures for selecting faculty, and several people outside the university have raised questions about nepotism. To gain international recognition, the university will have to overhaul its appointment practices.

Needless to say, Sabanci requires significant sums of money. The university is not endowed. Rather the budget is negotiated annually with the Sabanci Foundation. Faculty and administrators feel certain that the donors will guarantee annual funding in perpetuity. But the Turkish economy is in shambles. Inflation this past year raged at 40 per cent, and admission to the European Union remains elusive.

Still, the vast conglomerate that constitutes Sabanci Industries seems to be thriving: Mr Sabanci also presides over a bank and a museum. By building the university, Mr Sabanci has significantly raised his profile, provided a major service to his country and been given a large tax deduction. But as the demise of a number of internet-fortune based foundations in the US has revealed in the past year, a change in the donor's fortunes can wreak havoc with the best philanthropic intentions. At the present time two planned buildings are on hold, and the landscaping that is desperately needed to convey a sense of permanence and aesthetic completion for the campus is missing.

Despite these obvious challenges, the university sparkles with the excitement of the new, and only a churlish observer like myself would raise questions about long-term stability, particularly when most people to whom I spoke are resolutely upbeat. Whether in its dual-masters degree programme in engineering and leadership or its enviable conference schedule that brings leaders in the information technologies, higher education and scientific research to the campus, Sabanci University is undoubtedly a very exciting place to be.

Dorothy S. Zinberg teaches at the John F. Kennedy school of government at Harvard University.

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